Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No one mourns the wicked

No one mourns the wicked
No one cries: "They won't return!"
No one lays a lily on their grave
The good man scorns the wicked!
Through their lives, our children learn
What we miss
When we misbehave . . .

The Wicked Witch of the West is dead. In the original film "The Wizard of Oz," there is unmitigated joy: "Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead!? But in the contemporary musical "Wicked," a retelling from the putative witch's point of view, there is a kind of polluted glee. The delight at the downfall of this wicked person is a schadenfreude, a joy shadowed by a too-intent insistence that wickedness is easily distinguished from good by those who are themselves good. "Goodness knows" that the wicked get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

But it is, of course, not that simple. And just how complex it is develops in the course of the musical.

Is Elphaba wicked? Or wildly misunderstood and mistreated again and again? Is Glinda "the Good"? Or a whited sepulcher -- handcuffed by self-doubt, fear of failure and a slavish attention to others' opinions -- who sacrifices Elphaba to her own need to be popular? Does it matter if we can determine the goodness of the two?

It does if, as the lyric suggests, the lives of those we judge to be wicked are moral lessons to our children. What do children learn through the lives of the wicked? What do we miss when we misbehave?

If the story told in the first scene of "Wicked" is to be believed, children learn that "the wickeds' lives are lonely," that no one mourns the wicked, that the wicked die early and alone. So children learn to emulate Glinda and not Elphaba. Glinda is a hero; Elphaba is an object lesson.

Glinda is also shallow and self-centered. She readily uses others to get what she wants. She will "grovel in submission to feed [her] own ambition." And in the process, she accepts social givens. Elphaba, disfigured and dishonored by the sin of being born "green," is honest and caring with herself and others. She acts on principle. She does not tolerate foolishness or dishonesty in authority. When she encounters both in the Wizard, she experiences a moment of heightened consciousness that leads her to "defy gravity," to soar beyond the limits that others impose on her. This act of transgression is the source of her "wickedness," as she refuses to tolerate the wickedness (in the musical, the maltreatment of animals) perpetrated by others. Soon she is being accused – by those powerful others -- of lying and spreading fear. The irony of course, is that dishonesty and fear are defining characteristics for "Glinda the Good" and the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Neither Glinda nor the Wizard is wicked; each is weak. But that weakness grounds the judgment that Elphaba is wicked. Wickedness is not Elphaba's trait but Glinda's and the Wizard's reflection. And others -- all of us who need to believe that wickedness is in others -- somehow separate from the one who speaks truth to power, the one who defies social expectation.

This story constitutes a meditation on principled moral action and conventional behavior. (Is adherence to convention ever really moral?) But it is more than principle that motivates Elphaba and it's important to acknowledge that. Her location as a different "other" (she is, after all, green and admittedly odd rather than blond and popular like the good witch Glinda) grounds her experience of injustice and her awareness that the "something bad" happening is not only bad; it is also unfair. And her encounter with the Wizard jars her into realizing what she values precisely by shaking her faith in the Wizard's authority. Elphaba has thought-into-action in response to a situation that shakes up her taken for granted world. She interprets what's going on in the light of her own prior experience, her beliefs about what is fair, and her solidarity with other outsiders. She recognizes the consequences of "defying gravity" but "can't" want what she wanted before anymore. And she lives out the consequences of her action in the context of the overlapping communities of action that shape – but not define – her.

Moral agency is complicated and cannot be described or understood by focusing solely on principles or on consequences or on virtues. But any theory of moral agency and action must make room for principles and consequences and virtues. Is there such a theory of everything?


dougH said...

I don't think that it is possible, when speaking of moral agency, to have a theory that combines everything, including principles, consequences, and virtues. In order to do this, in my opinion, everyone would have to be the same and there would be no room for anyone to be different.

What I mean by this is that if there were one theory to describe all, there would have to be a set set of consequences for every action. As we know from working in schools, every action is not equal. A child who steals a milk from the cafeteria because he did not have anything at home to drink is different from the student who stole simply because he wanted to.

You would also need to have a set definition of virtues, and I have to believe this is very difficult as well. What may be very important for me, such as religion, is certainly not as high on the priority scale of other individuals in this world. I really think instead of looking at one theory to contain all, we need to really focus on the individual and what is appropriate for the individual.

lzarfos said...

The new version of the Wizard story seems to mimic the age old struggle between good and evil...the need for human beings to view the world as being in a constant struggle for good to overcome evil. We can analyze the moral dilemmas presented in the story until we are blue in the face but my question would simply ask why human nature continues to view humans as facing an endless struggle for good to win. Why are we not reassured that good is a constant in the world and that good will always transcend evil? Because human beings appear to have embraced the belief in good vs bad since the beginning of time, they must have an innate need for self protection or preservation, similar to what animal instincts offer to the animal world. Perhaps this fear of evil is a part of human nature that offers a basic function of protection for survival of the morally good.

Mark said...

As Socrates rationalized in our reading yesterday, it doesn't seem possible to even define the common thread between virtue yet alone that of virtue, consequences and principles. This being said, we are stuck in a world which graves such "definability". The inconsistencies of this desire for the seemingly impossible seems to be at the root of all conflict.

Carpe said...

Ah, fairy tales... they are sweet, heart-warming, and often shockingly unrealistic.

Similarly, nailing down accurate account of moral justice, moral integrity, or moral values creates a challenge.

This is a classic conventional story that reflects the condition of present society and some of the value systems that are regularly being reinforced.

to be continued...